Judge Jim Thomas is disturbed by George Carlin's appearance on The Jackie Gleason Show.
"It's bullshit, and it's bad for ya."
When famed entertainers die, we generally go, "Oh, that's terrible…I loved him/her in [whatever]." Then we go about our daily business, walking the dog, taking a leak, whatever. That's just how it goes. Paul Newman's passing bothered me, but I added Cool Hand Luke and The Hustler to my Amazon wish list, and moved on. Sometimes, though, it goes a little deeper. There have been precisely two entertainers whose deaths caused me physical pain, for whom I truly grieved. The first was Jim Henson.
The second was George Carlin.
George Carlin: It's Bad For Ya!, brought to us by MPI, was Carlin's last HBO special, recorded March 1, 2008, four months before his June 22 death.
Carlin's material has trended increasingly darker over the last decade; his 2005 HBO special, Life is Worth Losing, went so far over the edge—namely, an extended riff ridiculing suicide—that he quickly replaced that material in later shows. So you would think that his next show wouldn't be quite as grim.
And you would be wrong.
It's not that Carlin isn't funny—you can't listen to 25 seconds of material without recognizing Carlin's singular wit. But that material here hits a little closer to home than in previous specials. Religion has long been a staple of Carlin's act, going all the way back to his earliest albums. This time, though, instead of going after organized religion, he goes after faith itself—mocking people's belief in an afterlife, in angels, in God. The material is good, but the audience (myself included) is clearly uneasy.
That sense of unease permeates the entire special. The opening gets things off to an uneasy start. To begin with, Carlin himself just doesn't look good. Making matters worse, the opening bits are on age and dying, moving into the aforementioned afterlife material. The pacing is further hampered by the notable absence of the sort of material that balanced out the darker material in earlier shows—things we have in common, riffs on language. It's all dark, and the show ends with the cheery admonition that no one really has any rights, but only those permissions granted us by our government and corporate masters. As social commentary, it's somewhat sobering, but is that a quality you really look for in a comedy show?
Carlin himself wouldn't be bothered by that critique; he decided to go down the social commentary road back in the early '90s. To his credit, he never shied away from it. Hell, he wanted to disturb you. Other comedians, if they start doing a routine and the audience gets restless, they will instinctively reach back into the past and bring out a tried and true routine to win the audience back. Not Carlin—for him, the job is to make you laugh and, whether you want to or not, think. That's what really separated him from almost every other comedian out there.
The picture and sound are pretty good. Carlin, as he has for years, wears solid black, so if your display isn't calibrated properly, there will be times when a disembodied head floats across the screen. In my case, it happened while Carlin was talking about dead people looking down from heaven, so it actually enhances the material. The disc has two good extras. One, "Too Hip for the Room," is culled from an interview Carlin did in 2007 for the Archive of American Television. You get a great sense of how he developed through the years and what he was trying to do. (A link to the full three-hour interview is provided as an Accomplice.) The other extra is a 1969 appearance on The Jackie Gleason Show; it's kind of difficult to reconcile the George Carlin we now know with this appearance.
It would be great to say that Carlin's last special was his best, but it just ain't so. (Of his more recent output, my favorites are Jammin In New York and Complaints and Grievances.) If you're a Carlin fan, you may want it; it is not, however, recommended as someone's introduction to Carlin. It's Bad For Ya, though, comes across as a final, desperate attempt to awaken a public too far gone to be saved.
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